How I Learned to Hate the Phrase ‘Blue Eyed Soul’

blueeyes750

A commentary about race, music, and soul.

My inspiration for writing this post came long before Jesse Williams’ groundbreaking BET Awards Speech.  It came long before Justin Timberlake’s misguided Twitter reaction.  The inspiration comes from years of feeling awkward whenever I would sing and hear someone say, “Oh that white boy got soul.”

It comes from the fact that white artists like Sam Smith & Adele have very powerful, politically-driven marketing machines pumping millions of dollars into their careers, while black artists like Jazmine Sullivan don’t nearly get the support they deserve.

 

Adele vs Jazmine Sullivan

 

White people becoming ‘vultures’ of black culture is a real thing that most white people don’t want to admit.  I was at Le Souk nightclub in New York last weekend.  After my 5th Jameson on the rocks, I started paying closer attention to the people in the club and their behaviors.  Something was incredibly off-putting; a club population largely comprised of white people from middle-upper class backgrounds dancing and singing every word to Milly Rock“.

What’s wrong with this picture?  Think about it.  These high priced clubs are profiting from creating a euphoric environment that allows affluent white people to live in a rap fantasy.  They’re playing music that has gang and drug connotations to it; made by artists that largely come from poverty stricken, inner city communities.  There’s nothing about the music that middle-upper class white people can relate to; yet they love it.

Why?

The Truth Behind “Blue Eyed” Soul

“Blue eyed” soul is a stupid phrase from the 60s that described white artists with a soulful sound.  However, the term evolved to become much more.  It actually represents a manipulative marketing tactic that labels began using to position soulful white singers as rare, or exceptional.

To some people, talent is talent.  To others, this is the early onset of White Corporate America finding a clever way to exploit black culture for its own profits.

Sam Phillips Blue Eyed Soul

“If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.” —Sam Phillips, Sun Records founder.

My Problem With “Blue Eyed” Soul

I hate the term “blue eyed” soul.  Being that I’m a white guy with a soulful voice, it never sat quite right with me.  First of all, I’m of Italian descent with dark hair, brown eyes, and mostly ethnic physical features.  Not exactly blue eyed.  What about Asians and Hispanics?  I know plenty of soulful Asian & Hispanic singers who are amazingly talented.  Are we all just lumped into this “blue eyed” soul category together?

What I hate even more about “blue eyed” soul is that it automatically assumes that I shouldn’t be soulful to begin with.  It creates generalizations.  The white singer can’t be soulful, while the black singer is expected to be soulful.

That said, let’s think about the flip side of the argument.  What about when a black artist like Jason Derulo yields massive career success by means of creating auto-tune infested commercial pop / electronic music?  Does the black community view him as a “sell out”?

To be simplistic, a guy like Derulo is just catering to a larger audience by creating music with less depth.  The problem with the music industry is they love putting artists in a box; everyone has to be categorized and confined.

12 Things You Should Never Say To a Musician

The Politics of “Blue Eyed” Soul

A few years ago, I was approached by a record label A&R (basically a talent scout).  He told me that the label sent out a directive to all the A&Rs to find new white artists to sign.  We agreed to have a meeting to discuss my music career and potential opportunities.  During our meeting, he laid out a proposal that would outline a strategy for pitching me to a major label deal.

In this strategy, there were many racial criticisms of my look and sound that were extremely insulting.

  • Your voice is “too black.”
  • White audiences won’t like “all your runs.”
  • Your name is too ethnic, we need to make it sound “whiter.”
  • You need to drop the guitar, and learn choreography instead.
  • Would you be open to joining a boy band?
  • Stop working out, you’re too muscular and will intimidate a white audience.

This is real life experience.  I can’t make this stuff up.  Anyone who knows me can guess what I told him to do after that meeting.

Aside from that ignorant “your voice is too black” A&R, I’ve gotten my own label meetings before.  Here’s the feedback I got from the lawyer who was shopping me.

*Names of Lawyers + A&R’s have been omitted because I don’t feel like getting sued.*

Blue Eyed Soul Record Meeting

The label A&R said I had a “cool Robin Thicke vibe.”  If you’re a white singer and you get compared to Robin Thicke, that’s usually a good thing.  I’m not mad at it, just making a point that white singers get associated with other white singers.  From a marketing standpoint, it’s what labels have to do.  They want to be able to say that as an artist, I am similar to something that has been successful in the past, and therefore, I am a low risk investment.

Stealing Black Culture, Or Influenced By It?

  • Elvis Presley
  • Tom Jones
  • Bee Gees
  • Hall & Oates
  • George Michael
  • Michael McDonald
  • Teena Marie
  • Christina Aguilera
  • Jon B
  • Justin Timberlake
  • Robin Thicke
  • Sam Smith
  • Adele

These were just the artists I could think of from the top of my head, but they’ve all benefited massively from a sound built off black music.  Did they steal it, or were they just influenced by it?  I believe Jesse Williams has the answer…

“We’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil, black gold.”

As a white singer, listening to those words were chilling.  Not because I don’t agree, but because artists I get compared to are making millions of dollars by emulating black culture without any of the responsibilities to go along with it.  As the saying goes, “America loves black culture, but not black people.”

The real issue is clear.  White artists who have built empires off black music never seem to stand up for black issues when it matters most.  The same white fans who are partying to “Milly Rock” in the clubs are the same ones that would never actually download the single on iTunes.

What About White Rappers?

I don’t rap at all (just freestyle when I’m drunk), but I can tell you this.  Music is a gift from God.  It wasn’t meant to divide us. Man created the division.  The music is meant to bring us together.  Talib Kweli wrote a fascinating article on white fragility in hip-hop that says white rappers will get respect in the hip-hop community as long as they aren’t leveraging their rhymes to silence black pain.

“Because hip-hop as a culture is based on skill, as long as you have skills, you will be respected regardless of race. You will be given what is sometimes crudely referred to as “a pass.” This is a beautiful thing. It is proof that hip-hop has unified more people of different races than any other culture” – Talib Kweli

Let’s be real – labels know good and well what they’re doing when they put together a package like Iggy Azalea.  It’s a machine-made marketing product meant to drive profits.

Black Thought’s first verse in The Roots – “What They Do” is more relevant now in 2016 than it was when the song first came out.

“Lost generation, fast paced nation. World population confront they frustration. The principles of true hip-hop have been forsaken. It’s all contractual and about money makin’” – Black Thought

Are White Artists Making Better R&B Music Than Black Artists?

No.  They are not.  At least not the way mass media tries to make it seem. For example, last year GQ dubbed Sam Smith as the “New Face of Soul.”

Uh… what?

Most people don’t realize that the notion of “blue eyed” soul was created to even the playing field between black and white singers.  That’s what White America does when black people are better at something; they try to create their own version of it so that it appeals to a larger white audience.

R&B singer Tank weighs in…

“Robin Thicke & Justin Timberlake are leading the charge in R&B music. We can’t hate! We can’t hate on what it is! The truth is what it is.  Robin Thicke & Justin Timberlake are doing R&B music better than us.  We need to catch up.” – Tank

Sorry Tank, I’d disagree with that one. Robin Thicke’s last few years have been atrocious, both musically and personally. Justin’s last project was very good, but I still don’t think it’s enough to say that he’s leading the charge in R&B music.

There’s a lot of great R&B music being made by black artists, it’s just harder to discover.  In 2015, some of my favorite releases were from Ne-Yo, Tyrese, Jazmine Sullivan, Miguel, Tamar Braxton, & Kehlani.  For some reason though, it seems like all we heard about was Adele and The Weeknd.

Tyrese even promoted his album on the NYC subway.. While this is admirable, would you ever see Sam Smith having to do this? Doubt it.

Tank dropped a Valentine’s Day EP last year that was masterfully done.  He remade songs like Justin Timberlake’s “End of Time” and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.”  Any true R&B fan is already familiar with Tank’s impressive vocal and musical prowess. To me, it felt more like he was proving a point with the release.

What’s The Solution?

We can’t blame the consumers… or can we?

rnb music trap music

This is alarming. This is why you see artists like Tank jumping onto the TRAPSOUL bandwagon. It’s a desperation move to stay relevant.

Looks like Tank changed his mind quite a bit since this Tweet.

Tank Tweet

And then… 

Damn Tank. You’re even rocking the Bryson Tiller look.  Can we really blame him though?

There are problems beyond race that live within the consumers. With my generation in particular, nobody really cares if you can sing or how talented you are.  What matters most is partying.  Can your music help enhance the party atmosphere?  If not, you’re going to have to tap into that undiscovered niche market and supply an “abstract” demand of music.

With all that said – R&B is just as good and diverse as it has been in years, but commercially it suffers (if it isn’t branded as white).  And tying it back to the blue eyed soul thing: white artists aren’t making better soul music; they’re just marketed better. Statistically speaking, the white marketplace is much larger than any other market.

U.S. Population by Race

*Source: U.S. Census Bureau

With whites representing about 62% of the population, that widens the marketing opportunity to be 5x greater than that of the black audience.

Even Talib Kweli admits that white kids will always be the primary consumers of hip-hop around the world. When it comes to R&B / Soul, that is simply not the case. White audiences just haven’t extended the same listening courtesy to black artists.

That said, it seems that diversity is the future, and the data validates.  While most of the U.S. population is white at this point, Nielsen is projecting that multicultural groups will represent a combined 60% of the U.S. population by 2060.

Multicultural Consumers

Call it political.  Call it racial.  Call it what you will.  All I can do is my part, which starts with having the guts to write this article.

Oh yeah, and for the record. F*ck that “blue eyed” soul bullshit!

 

 

Top image: Corey Butler, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0).

9 Responses

  1. Mysteries

    Why are Americans obsessed with skin color? Why do they insist on defining people by this particular physical trait, and then proceed to separate them? You can’t decide which music genres people should be inspired by based on how they look like (or anything else). They’re all musicians and they get inspired by music. That’s all. Also, the vast majority of artists, regardless of skin color, don’t get the support and recognition they need, while only a few black artists and a few white ones enjoy such privilege. If someone is denied opportunities due to prejudice of course this has to be discussed, but this doesn’t make it sensible to decide that white artists can only be inspired by people of the same color. There’s no innate difference between black and white people, so this whole mentality of black this and white that makes no sense.

    Reply
  2. DavidB

    According to the infallible Wikipedia, the term ‘blue-eyed soul’ was first coined in the 1960s in relation to the (white American) Righteous Brothers. But maybe because I’m British, I’ve always associated it more with British and Irish singers from the mid-60s onwards: people like Van Morrison, Eric Burdon, Tom Jones, Joe Cocker, Stevie Winwood, Georgie Fame, Dusty Springfield, Christine McVie, Maggie Bell, and many others (including David Bowie in his mid-70s ‘Plastic Soul’ phase). The writer only mentions one of these (Tom Jones), and concentrates on more recent, bland commercial examples like Sam Smith and Adele. The singers I have mentioned maybe give a different perspective on the issues, because one thing they have in common (apart from being very good singers) is that they are or were all very respectful of black American music and did a great deal to promote it when it was not always fashionable in America itself.

    Reply
  3. Polochon

    Ok… I’m mostly into heavy-metal -and- classical music. None of your graphics or demonstration apply to (or include) the music I like. Am I not part of the music market? Are there only “super backed-up white artists” vs. “barely helped black artists”? What about Beyonce and the likes? I could name tens (maybe hundreds) of white artists who are barely followed by their record company.

    Oh, and, a few weeks ago, I went to see a Tunisian band in Paris. Playing metal, mixed with “oriental” sounds/music. And they were awesome. They are somehow backed by their label, mostly because people around them believe in them and try to do as much as possible for them. Are they included anywhere in your demonstration?
    (For those curious, they’re called Myrath. And once again, they’re awesome!)

    Most of the bands I love never make it in mass medias. Yet, most of them are white people. And this is true even when they are signed to a major company, for example Blind Guardian who was with EMI for a few years.

    There is definitely a problem with the way music is promoted today. A racial problem? I highly doubt it. More that… “in the old days”, when you listened to the radio or watched a music TV for 3 hours (for example), there were extremely few chances for one song to be repeated twice. Nowadays, chances are extremely high. I’d say the problem lies around here, not around racial issues.

    Reply
  4. Eldonie

    Great article and even better is that you had the courage to write it. Much success to you!

    Reply
  5. Mike Errico

    Interpretations of “blue,” as in “sad,” date as far back as 1385, and Chaucer’s poem, The Complaint of Mars. In the late 1940s, Jerry Wexler, a white Billboard writer who later became a partner at Atlantic records, coined the term “Rhythm and Blues,” or “R&B,” to replace the then-used term “race music.” In effect, R&B became a blanket genre for black artists, and the convention has largely remained today.

    the issue is one of authenticity, and it extends across all cultures. I guess there are a lot of posers out there, which shouldn’t be a shocker.

    To add to the discussion, I offer this piece I wrote in the Observer, complete with a Spotify playlist that includes Japanese koto, Louis Armstrong’s Orthodox Jewish influences, and yeah, John Lee Hooker.

    I hope it sheds some light.

    What the Blues Can Teach You About Life, Art and Everything In-Between:

    http://observer.com/2016/01/what-the-blues-can-teach-you-about-life-art-and-everything-in-between/

    Reply
  6. Su Yuck

    Led Zeppelin borrowed heavily from the blues, and then added their own thing to it, and it resulted in something that was white-generated and quality, as defined by many millions of fans. Same with the Beatles, Stone, Who, and others.

    Jimi Hendrix was as black as it could get, and yet he didn’t limit himself. He took in the psychedelic, generated mostly by white people in SF, themselves, borrowing from the black blues, but also white country, which also had roots in black AND white music. Why are all black people emulating rappers and not doing the hard work it takes to be another Jimi Hendrix?

    I’m SO tired of this stupid racial argument about music. Beethoven and Bach were white. Should I accuse black people who use counterpoint, as defined by Back, of culture misappropriation because everyone uses harmonic structures he pioneered?

    This argument is beyond moronic, and it needs to top. Adele has a good voice, and she got famous. Too bad for the horse you have your money on. That’s showbiz. Deal with it. Of course political bands are buried like Public Enemy, So are white bands. Clear Channel killed the edge of the music industry, with some help from technology sellouts like those at Google.

    Worry about good music getting some compensation, and stop worrying about which race is doing it. The police issue is valid, and so are economics. Give this area a rest. It’s pure stupidity. Beyonce has her hair dyed blonde! Real true to her race that is.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    The original perspective of what Blue Eyed Soul means.
    At Paul’s behest, here is my two cents on Blue Eyed Soul.
    I am 63, so I was there at the transformation of Rhythm and Blues into Soul Music.
    I was never into Elvis, C Berry, Fats or Little Richard. None of them were great singers.
    I loved the vocal stylings of Doo Wop, and the early Girl Groups. Sam Cooke was my favorite singer.
    in 1963, (I was 10), I went to my 1st concert. A Murray The K(the DJ) Holiday Show.
    About 15 Acts, doing 2 songs a piece.
    To my surprise, 90% of the Acts were Black. Little Anthony, Chuck Jackson, Ben E King, The Crystals, Shirelles and an unknown group of acts called the Motown Revue.
    They as much as the Brits were speaking my language.
    I fell in love with this sound and started listening to the only Black station in NY, WWRL, as much as the famed WABC, way at the other end of the AM Dial.
    Thats where I discovered Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley, Stax and Motown, and so many others, that WABC wasn’t playing.
    Eventually WABC had to, because they were selling in such huge numbers.
    As big as the British Invasion was, for so many of us White kids, Soul Music was just as big.
    The first time I heard the term was, I think, in 1964, and it was used to describe the Righteous Brothers(You’ve Lost That Lovin Feelin).
    It was a term of endearment, originally by Black DJ’s, who said, ‘wow, these guys sound like Soul Brothers’.
    The Righteous Bros and the Young Rascals(my 1st favorite group, and over the Beatles, and all the other British Bands) were the leading proponents of this sound. Some attributed the name also to some British Bands(Animals, Stones, etc…)
    But thats wrong, because they were based on the blues, not U S Soul. Dusty Springfield would be a British exception.
    Do not confuse it with the Blues, or R&B, and it was certainly not ‘race music’, and it has no resemblance to the Vocal Calisthenics, that evolved in the 90’s(Christina, Whitney, Mariah, etc..)
    Every one of them just copied and exaggerated Aretha. And please don’t include J Timberlake in this conversation.
    It was Pop Music by Black Singers.
    Aretha, Otis, Marvin Gaye, were the best examples of the Soul Sound.
    It was a glorious sound and style, that many White singers were influenced by, and all White kids loved.
    And there was nothing Racist about it.
    Quite the contrary. It was a homage, via influence.
    And the term was the highest compliment a Black singer could give to a White singer.
    As far as I’m concerned Soul Music went in a different direction after the 80’s, and I do not correlate it to anything that came after.
    Thats just my opinion.
    Stu Cohen

    Reply

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